Brant James
Wednesday November 4th, 2009

Somewhere in a grungy little warehouse, those counterfeit T-shirts are being disgorged from a press. The slogan will be tacky and obviously unauthorized, but the shirt will sell well enough when they show up in the camper lot at Ft. Worth, Texas, or Avondale, Ariz. Might as well get a head start, because Jimmie Johnson has apparently put this NASCAR Sprint Cup title chase away.

Johnson, whose average finish in the Chase for the Championship is 3.4 (he's finished as far back as ninth once), needs only to average a finish of tenth in the final three races to secure the championship. And that's if Martin Martin wins all three races and leads the most laps.

But Johnson contends he's no "shoo-in." Maybe because he knows full well there are still a myriad of whirling variables than can undo a title run that appears within grasp. Maybe he fears these 10 the most.

1. Mark Martin: Certainly, the 50-year-old's chances appeared to tumble and smash with his No. 5 Chevrolet in the final laps at Talladega on Sunday, but he remains statistically viable with three races remaining. Of course, he's realistically resigned to finishing -- at best -- as a runner-up for the fifth time in his 27-year career.

At 184 points behind Johnson, he likely needs one huge biblical slate-evening from a career of rotten luck and title-chase heartbreak to surpass his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. This would not be subtle stuff. We're talking frogs from the sky getting Johnson loose in Turn 4 at Texas, cautions from sandstorms in Phoenix, a burning Busch at Homestead.

2. Schedule trickery: What if the rest of the garage actually is able to keep a secret and Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus never learn of the clandestine bonus Chase race NASCAR scheduled for Nov. 17 at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida? What if NASCAR officials, in a brilliant bit of forward-thinking akin to hole-in-one insurance at the local pro-am, added an extra chance for the rest of the field to squirrel some points and gird against the Menace of Autumn? It may be a good idea, actually, and may be worth looking into when Johnson is going for one for the thumb. On second thought, Knaus probably had Johnson testing at NSB just in case, anyway.

3. Homestead-Miami Speedway ninjas: The International Speedway Corp., host to the season finale, lost the focal point of its ticket campaign when local resident Juan Pablo Montoya fell out of contention for the title despite an impressive first Chase. Now Johnson is threatening to clinch at the penultimate race of the season, at Phoenix, rendering prostrate all that confetti and pomp ready for display at Homestead.

4. Brad Keselowski: There are those who carp that Keselowski -- who will join Kurt Busch at Penske this week in the No. 12 Dodge -- runs into most everything he approaches. And that was before Keselowski helped send Busch and Martin careening at Talladega. Perhaps Johnson should be wary of that hard-charging young driver with something to prove.

5. Melancholy: Imagine Jimmie Johnson, elbow on knee, head in hand like some firesuited Thinker.

"Four championships in a row ... would that give me peace? Would that change the substance of a man? What do I have to show for all this?"

Fame, fortune, history, and a reality show on HBO.

No, this one might not pan out.

6. Rage virus: We've seen this all before. Champion race car driver infected by blood-borne pathogen, quickly devolves into a zombie-thing, becomes more consumed with consuming human meat than perpetuating his legacy. Sad. This time we'll call it "48 Days Later."

7. Intolerance: NASCAR confiscated Johnson's and Martin's cars after three different Chase races this season, eventually deeming them micro-close to failing inspection because of their proximity to "tolerance" limits, but ultimately legal. Sprint Cup series director John Darby said he was merely informing Knaus -- who has a well-documented and well-penalized history of rules-testing -- that the No. 48 was coming within micrometers of the permissible limit of variation in some of the many common-template measurements taken during race weekends. A major points penalty would certainly tighten the championship race, but there seemingly wouldn't be any need to push those limits right now.

8. A Grand Am race: Johnson required surgery to repair tendon and nerve damage after gashing the middle finger of his left hand trying to cut a hole in his firesuit during the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race in January. He admitted the digit was itchy and twitchy even weeks afterward, although he was able to work around the injury once Speed Weeks began.

9. Five-peat: Knaus is so fastidious that he may be prepared to begin working on 2010. He may actually be doing it already. Heck, he could be working on 2011 and fuel injectors. What if he messes up a Texas drag co-efficient or something?

10. The beard: Johnson had two wins and was third in points (212 behind Tony Stewart) with the face rug. He has four wins (including at Indianapolis, immediately post-lather), has nine top-10s in his last 14 and is running off to a third straight title since.

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